2020 Innovation Fund Awardees

Investigating Hidden Strengths among Children with Dyslexia 

Silvia Bunge (UC Berkeley) and Christa Watson (UCSF)

The vast majority of research on dyslexia focuses on deficits; there has been very little rigorous research probing possible cognitive strengths or compensatory mechanisms. We propose to leverage behavioral and brain imaging methods to explore the hypothesis that some children with dyslexia leverage a strength in semantic processing—the way our minds process the meaning of words or other stimuli—to support other cognitive functions. We further hypothesize that those who exhibit deeper semantic processing will have other cognitive strengths, as well as differential functional brain organization. This research aims to contribute to our understanding of how children with this developmental disorder can best fulfill their potential. 

Development of neural fine-tuning for orthography and words: Implications for dyslexia 

Kevin Weiner (UC Berkeley) and Florence Bouhali (USCF)

One milestone of successful reading acquisition is the specialization of a region of the visual cortex for recognizing letters and words: the so-called Visual Word Form Area (VWFA). While this region shows a high neural fine-tuning for orthography and words in adult proficient readers, the VWFA of dyslexic readers is consistently impaired. Using a unique repetition suppression experimental design, we will investigate how words are encoded in the VWFA in childhood and adulthood, and the exact processes underlying the lack of sensitivity and specificity of this region in dyslexia across ages. 

Cognitive Diversity in Californian Juvenile Offenders Quantitative and Qualitative Data on Impacts of LLD(S) in Life Trajectories 

Andrea Lollini (UC Hastings) and Michelle Porche (UCSF)

The Cognitive Diversity in Californian Juvenile Offenders study will collect data on the prevalence of language-based learning disorders (LLDs) among youth offenders in California. Multiple research approaches include a review of administrative policy data paired with comprehensive neurological testing from a small pilot sample of justice-involved youth; semi-structured qualitative interviews will gather personal accounts of life experiences affected by LLD. Results from this study will inform intervention development and support policymakers in developing solutions to increase literacy in justice-involved youth populations. This study is part of a larger research program designed to improve understanding of the cognitive, academic, and social consequences of LLD that will help reduce stigma and improve life trajectories of this specific vulnerable population. 

Novel Linkages Between Developmental Dyslexia, the Genetics of Structural Brain Anomalies, and Language Lateralization

Zachary Miller (UCSF), Elliott Sherr (UCSF), and Srikatan Nagarajan (UCSF)

The underlying basis of dyslexia remains unknown, but one prominent hypothesis posits that focal disruptions in neuronal migration are at the root cause of reading disability.  In support of this hypothesis, we observe a greater degree of anomalous language lateralization in adults with reading disability and find malformations of cortical development on structural neuroimaging in nearly half of children diagnosed with developmental dyslexia.  In this grant, we will employ novel functional imaging paradigms piloted in adults within 25 children with diagnoses of dyslexia and radiographic anomalies, to investigate the functional consequence of these structural differences.  Further, as a means of discovering the mechanisms behind these structural and functional imaging findings, we observe in dyslexia, we will perform in-depth genetic analyses on 50 children/parent dyads who demonstrate these radiographic differences. Together, the results of this effort will help us uncover the neurobiological origins of reading disability and identify novel genetic processes behind developmental dyslexia.   

Teacher Knowledge of Dyslexia in Spanish-speaking Populations

Monica Zegers Larrain (UC Berkeley GSE, doctoral student)

The purpose of this study is to develop a measure for evaluating teachers’ knowledge of dyslexia within Spanish-speaking populations. In-service Chilean teachers and US teachers working with Spanish-speaking students will be invited to participate. Survey data will be analyzed using Item Response Theory to test the instrument functioning. Descriptive statistics of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs will also be obtained. This information will be used to offer recommendations for professional development opportunities tailored to the needs of such teachers. 

Examining Adolescents’ Experiences with Cyberbullying: A Focus on Risk and Resilience Among Youth with Dyslexia

Sarah Manchanda (UC Berkeley GSE, doctoral student)

Utilizing a mixed-methods research approach with 250 middle and high school students with dyslexia across the nation, this project seeks to advance our understanding of how adolescents identified with dyslexia and comorbid psychopathology are impacted by increased time on virtual platforms, the prevalence of their cyberbullying, and victimization experiences, and factors that support resilience in response to risks of cyberbullying and victimization. The ultimate goal is to learn more about how adolescents with dyslexia are affected by cyberbullying and victimization, and how these experiences influence identity formation, school adjustment, and mental health outcomes. Such knowledge can inform the development of resources to support families and schools in addressing the mental health and school adjustment needs of adolescents with dyslexia.